Alexander II


Source:  James Harvey Robinson and Charles Beard, History of Europe (Boston: Ginn & Co., 1921), pp. 410-15.

This is an excerpt from Robinson and Beard's classic history textbook of 1921.


738. Alexander II and the Crimean War. In 1854 the efforts of Russia to increase her influence in Turkey led to a war with France and England. The Russians were defeated, and their strong fortress of Sebastopol, in the Crimea, was captured by the allies. Nicholas I died in the midst of the reverses of the Crimean War, leaving to his son, Alexander II, the responsibility of coming to terms with the enemy, and then, if possible, strengthening Russia by reducing the disgraceful political corruption and bribery which had been revealed by the war and by improving the lot of the people at large who lived in poverty and degradation.

739. Situation of the Russian Serfs. Nearly one half of the Tsar's subjects were serfs, whose bondage and wretched lives seemed to present an insurmountable barrier to general progress and prosperity. The landlord commonly reserved a portion of his estate for himself and turned over to his serfs barely enough to enable them to keep body and soul together. They usually spent three days in the week cultivating their lord's fields. He was their judge as well as their master and could flog them at will. The Russian serfs were indeed practically slaves and were viewed as scarcely more than beasts of burden.

From time to time the serfs, infuriated by the hard conditions imposed upon them, revolted against their lords. During the reign of Catherine the Great a general uprising had taken place which grew to the proportions of a civil war and was only put down with terrible bloodshed and cruelty. Under Nicholas I over five hundred riots had occurred, and these seemed to increase rather than decrease, notwithstanding the vigilance of the police and the severity of the government.

740. Emancipation of the Serfs (March, 1861). Alexander II, fearful lest the peasants should again attempt to win their liberty by force, decided that the government must undertake the difficult task of freeing forty millions of his subjects from serfdom. After much discussion he issued an emancipation proclamation, March 3, 1861, on the eve of the great civil war which was to put an end to negro slavery in the United States.

In his anxiety to prevent any loss to the landowners, who constituted the ruling class in the Russian. government, the Tsar did his work in a very half-hearted manner. It is true the government deprived the former lord of his right to force the peasants to work for him and pay him the old dues; he could no longer flog them or command them to marry against their will; but the peasants still remained bound to the land, for they were not permitted to leave their villages without a government pass. The landlords surrendered a portion of their estates to the peasants, but this did not become the property of individual owners, but of the village community as a whole. The land assigned to each village was to be redistributed periodically among the various families of the community so that, aside from his hut and garden, no peasant could lay claim permanently to any particular plot of land.

741. The Landlords generously Treated. The government dealt very generously with the landlords. It not only agreed that the peasants should be required to pay for such land as their former masters turned over to them, but commonly fixed the price at an amount far greater than the real value of the land--a price which the government paid and proposed to collect from the serfs in installments. His new freedom seemed to the peasant little better than that of a convict condemned to hard labor in the penitentiary. Indeed, he sometimes refused to be "freed" when he learned of the hard bargain which the government proposed to drive with him. There were hundreds of riots while the readjustments were taking place, which were sternly suppressed by the government. The peasants were compelled by force of arms to accept their "liberty" and pay the land tax which emancipation imposed upon them.

742. Sad Lot of the "Freed" Serfs. Naturally, if the people in a given community increased, the size of the individual allotments inevitably decreased, and with that the chances of earning a livelihood. More than fifty years after the "freeing" of the serfs the peasant had, on the average, scarcely half as much land as that originally assigned to him. Although he lived constantly on the verge of starvation, he fell far behind in the payment of his taxes, so that in 1904 the Tsar, in a moment of forced generosity, canceled the arrears, which the peasants could, in any case, never have paid. A little later the Tsar issued an order permitting the peasants to leave their particular village and seek employment elsewhere. They might, on the other hand, become owners of their allotments. This led to the practical abolition of the ancient mir, or village community, and left millions of peasants as tenants of great landlords and sometimes as owners of their holdings.

743. The Rise of Nihilism. Alexander II's despotic regime developed among the more cultivated classes a spirit of opposition, known as nihilism. This was not in its, origin a frantic terrorism, as commonly supposed, but an intellectual and moral revolt against tyranny in the State, bigotry in the Church, and all unreasonable traditions and unfounded prejudices. In short, the nihilist would have agreed with Voltaire, Diderot, and the Encylopedists in exalting reason as man's sole guide in this mysterious world.

744. Origin of Terrorism. The government officials regarded the reformers with the utmost suspicion and began to arrest the more active among them. The prisons were soon crowded and hundreds were banished to Siberia. The Tsar and his police seemed to be the avowed enemies of all progress, and anyone who advanced a new idea was punished as if he had committed a murder. The peaceful preparation of the people for representative government could not go on so long as the police were arresting men for forming debating clubs. It seemed to the more ardent reformers that there was no course open to them but to declare war on the government as a body of cruel, corrupt tyrants who would keep Russia in darkness forever. They argued that the atrocious acts of the officials must be exposed, the government intimidated, and the eyes of the world opened to the horrors of the situation by startling acts of violence. So some of the reformers became terrorists, not because they were depraved men or loved bloodshed, but because they were convinced that there was no other way to save their beloved land from the fearful oppression tinder which it groaned.

745. Oppression and Assassination. The government fought terrorism with terrorism. In 1879 sixteen suspected revolutionists were hanged and scores sent to the dungeons of St. Petersburg or the mines of Siberia. The terrorists, on their part, retaliated by attacks on the Tsar and his government. A student tried to kill the Tsar as the head and representative of the whole tyrannical system. Attempts were made to blow up a special train on which the Tsar was traveling, and, in another effort to kill him, the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg was wrecked by a revolutionist disguised as a carpenter.

In short, the efforts of the Tsar's officials. to check the revolutionists proved vain, and the minister to whom the Tsar had given almost dictatorial powers to suppress the agitation finally saw that the government must make some concessions in order to pacify its enemies; so he advised Alexander II to grant a species of constitution, in which he should agree to convoke an assembly elected by the people and thereafter ask its opinion and counsel before making new and important laws. The Tsar finally consented, but it was too late. On the afternoon that he gave his assent to the plan he was assassinated as he was driving to his palace (March, 1881).

746. The Balkan Wars. The reign of Alexander II had not been entirely given up to internal reforms and repression, however. In 1877 Russia was again at war with Turkey, aiding the "south Slavs"--Serbians, Montenegrins, and Bulgarians in their attempt to throw off the Turkish yoke. Successful in arms, Russia was, however, obliged to relinquish most of her gains and those of her allies by a congress of the European powers held at Berlin in 1878. But all this is described in the next chapter.



All materials on this site are copyright © 2005, C.T. Evans
For information contact